POST-GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS….A HANDY TEN

The “Golden Age” of the Hollywood western is generally conceded to have stretched from 1946 to 1962. It’s bounded by the respective releases of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in the former year* and Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in the latter.

Based on the films each man released in ’62, the hand-off from Ford to Peckinpah should have been a natural one. What happened instead was what we like to call The Sixties.

All that’s beyond the scope of what I’m after here, which is simply to suggest some films for viewing that, taken together, make up an impressive legacy of their own. Call them markers on a trail to what might have been…

The Shooting (1966)
D. Monte Hellman

Harrowing. This film is as unsettling as In a Lonely Place…perhaps more so, because it doesn’t have Humphrey Bogart’s, or even Gloria Grahame’s, level of star power to supply a set of foundational assumptions. With this and Ride in the Whirlwind, Hellman invented what came to be called Acid Westerns. That’s a ridiculous moniker (did anyone think to call Lonely Place Acid Noir? As though it’s destabilizing qualities were merely hallucinatory? Thought not.) When Warren Oates is the stable one, you’re in another land alright. But it’s one that could only be reached through the gateway of the western–not a pill. Next to this, the best spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch look silly and ham-handed. Not to mention light-hearted.

Hombre (1966)
D. Martin Ritt

Strong by any standard. One of Newman’s signature “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Harper) and perhaps the best. Not least because his character has no redeeming quality except that he’s right. This is Stagecoach turned into a nightmare. One where the characters never quite wake up. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Martin Ritt (who made an awful lot of good movies for a guy who doesn’t get talked about much) watched a lot of Boetticher-Scott westerns somewhere along the way. Or maybe Elmore Leonard (who wrote the source material for this and Boetticher’s The Tall T–as here, Richard Boone played the villain) just brought certain qualities out of people.

True Grit (1969)
D. Henry Hathaway

Don’t sleep on this one just because John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance is larger than life even by his standards or because there’s been a fine remake. Kim Darby is still the definitive Mattie Ross. George MacDonald Fraser’s assertion that the line readings throughout are the closest we’ll ever have to hearing Victorian western speech as it was actually spoken makes it plain this is a window into a lost world. Charles Portis’ source novel provided dozens of memorable lines…and Marguerite Roberts’ script added a few more, without missing a beat. I still wish they had kept Portis’ ending, but everything else is in place. For Wayne and Darby and a host of fine characterizations (Strother Martin and Robert Duval are especially memorable) it will always be worth revisiting.

Bad Company (1972)
D. Robert Benton

One of the best roles Jeff Bridges ever had while he quietly went about being the best actor of his generation. Here, he and an equally effective Barry Brown are green as grass Civil War draft-dodgers heading west….and finding out maybe marching off the war wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all. Bridges’ brand of American innocence is even funnier–and warmer–in a western setting. It’s a shame he didn’t come along twenty years earlier, when he might have made a dozen of these.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
D. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich and star Burt Lancaster had been players in the Golden Age and even made a couple of fine westerns together (Apache and the wonderful Vera Cruz, with Gary Cooper). This gave them an opportunity to raise their game and they were more than up to the task. Lancaster was never better than as a grizzled scout trying to help a green lieutenant (a superbly callow, but learning fast, Bruce Davison), track down a renegade Apache band and perhaps even live to tell the tale. This might be seen as re-revisionist western–a kind of answer film to Arthur Penn’s misguided Little Big Man, which had perverted Thomas Berger’s great novel from comedy into parody, and presented the warrior cultures of the Plains Indians (in that case the Cheyenne, who held the U.S. Cavalry at bay for forty years) as peace loving flower children. No one, at least, will emerge from watching Ulzana’s Raid for the first or twentieth time under any misapprehension that Apaches would have been at home in the Age of Aquarius….or welcomed hippies into their own age.

The Shootist (1976)
D. Don Siegel

A setup to be sure. John Wayne, cancer victim and last of the Golden Age cowboys, playing John Bernard Books, cancer victim and last of the Old West gunfighters. But, with the great Don Siegel (like Martin Ritt, an underappreciated pro’s pro) at the helm, an impeccable cast (Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone–one could go on) and a lean, well-measured script, it defies expectations and transcends its own nostalgia. It self-consciously echoes a hundred westerns, none more than Shane. Except this time, the gunfighter does not ride out of the valley. And it isn’t clear what he has done for Civilization–except represent the best of what it inevitably washes away.

The Quick and the Dead (1987)
D. Robert Day

In the eighties, the western was represented most ably on television, with adaptations of Louis L’Amour (usually starring either Sam Eiliott or Tom Selleck) leading the way. This and the Selleck vehicle, Crossfire Trail, are my own favorites and can stand for the lot–fine westerns that might not have stood out in the Golden Age, but certainly would have held their own. Elliott and Selleck, both excellent, are a wash and Crossfire Trail gave Wilfred Brimley the role of a lifetime. Still, I’m giving this one the edge because it has a slightly more expansive story and a fine performance by the always under-utilized Kate Capshaw, as an eastern woman adapting to the mindset of the frontier more rapidly  than her husband (an equally good Tom Conti), in part because she grasps how vulnerable any woman (let alone one as fetching as Kate Capshaw) is in a land where the law is what you make it.

Lonesome Dove (Miniseries) (1989)
D. Simon Wincer

Speaking of television….This epic mini-series blew the doors open when it first aired. There was serious talk of the western being revived in a way that hasn’t really occurred since. And it’s all that. None of the fine cast were ever better, and, though the story is an old one (it’s about a cattle drive after all), the mini-series length gave Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duval, among others, a scope rarely afforded elsewhere. They took full advantage. The effect on Duval’s career was unfortunate. He’s satisfied himself with playing old coots ever since, with markedly diminishing returns. Jones didn’t get his mojo back until he learned to laugh at himself in the Men in Black series. But that doesn’t diminish what they did here, in the company of the strongest female cast to appear in any western (again, the length matters)–Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Glenne Headly, all superb. The other volumes in the Lonesome Dove series are good, especially Streets of Laredo, with James Garner and Sissy Spacek taking over the Jones and Lane roles (and being everything you would expect from those two). I also recommend Larry McMurtry’s source books. But the space opened up here has never been filled by anything else, making it, in its own way, as epic as anything done by the old masters.

Appaloosa (2008)
D. Ed Harris

An entertaining, if troubling, update on the town-taming ethos. The set up is similar to Warlock, Edward Dmytryk’s entertaining, if troubling, take on the town-taming ethos from 1959. I like Appaloosa better. The story is tighter, the grim psychology more relentless and logical. And there’s a rare good middle-age role for Renee Zellweger. Those who worry about the western (or any action) genre bleeding into fascism will not be comforted, but not being comforted is a symptom of the concerned citizen and you could spend your life worrying about subjects a lot less worthy of your time and attention. And I’m normally not big on actors directing, but Ed Harris does a lovely, understated job here. No fancy camera tricks, just straight, non-nonsense storytelling that lets the good actors (including himself) do their thing.

True Grit (2010)
D. Joel and Ethan Coen

It feels a little odd to include both versions of True Grit on such a small list. Thee are other worthy candidates even if I did leave off spaghetti westerns (God help me, I do like Sergio Leone), Peckinpah (I like several of his later westerns, including, until the end, The Wild Bunch–that’s the part that excites a lot of people but seems to me senseless bluster), or spoofs (highly recommend the Kennedy/Garner Support duo and Waterhole #3).

But I can’t choose between them and I certainly can’t leave them both off. This has the advantage of great atmosphere and sticks reasonably close to Portis’ story and language. Jeff Bridges proves again that a lot was lost when he didn’t get to make more westerns. Matt Damon acquits himself well. Hailee Steinfeld makes for a compelling contrast to Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross and gives the role her own stamp–maybe proving that, like Rooster Cogburn, Mattie’s just a great character, open to a wide array of interpretations. And the Coens more or less restored the book’s ending, pulling the punch only slightly by not having the older Mattie recite the entire last paragraph of the novel, which gets my vote for the finest ending of any American novel. It was a hit and, once more, there was talk of reviving the western. There always will be such talk–the western is in our DNA. But if we have to live with what we have, it’s still a lifetime investment getting to know the best of it. If you want to take that journey, everything here is worth adding to your list.

**NOTE: Howard Hawks’ Red River was shot in 1946 but not released until 1948. According to one of the film’s stars, Joanne Dru, the main reason was trouble in the editing room, resolved when Hawks sought Ford’s advice (Ford did not, so far as I know, do any actual editing but made some key suggestions). Hawks later admitted to Peter Bogdanovich that Ford was always in his head anyway. I mention it only to illustrate that Ford was always in everybody’s head. Regarding anyone who’s up to any good, he still is, even if they’ve never heard of him.

 

MY FAVORITE WESTERN THEME (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Movies only…we’ll leave this, by a long ways the best TV western theme, aside…

..and stick to the cinema entries.

First, a little history:

Narration: Though High Noon opened to universal praise in late July, 1952, one of its early previews has proved disastrous. 

Fred Zinneman, Jr.: What was wrong with the preview was that there was wall-to-wall music in it and what people were responding to was the amount of music. After it was over, people–all the executives–were forming into little groups, whispering, and I just went into the bathroom, where two other executives were, and I heard one of them say to the other, “Well, what does a European Jew know about making westerns anyway?”

From Inside High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Frank Langella, narration)

Stanley Kramer:  He (Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn) said “What difference does it make? So I ran it. It’s a piece of junk anyway”

Narration: Now, in fairness to Harry Cohn, the print that he saw of High Noon was missing a crucial element: music. You don’t have to be an expert to know how much music can add to a movie. But in this case the music was so unusual, so revolutionary, in fact, for its time, it added a whole dimension to the picture. Most movies of the 1950s opened with a fanfare, a big orchestra. Here’s what you heard at the beginning of High Noon…as spare and low-key as the film itself:

(From The Making of High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Leonard Maltin, narration)

Not that those sometimes fanfares went away entirely….either from not so famous movies…

or extremely famous ones…

Or that you couldn’t split the difference:

Still, the makers of High Noon–having gone with too little music and too much–were onto something when they found the right mix. In the western, at least, vocals added something.

But there were only a few great ones. Some spare and low-key, some operatic.

And some of them didn’t make it to the movie. Well, one of them anyway:

Sometimes, a shoulda’ been didn’t make the movie either…

…that’s from the cutting floor of Rio Bravo, which, if it’s missed, is not as missed as it might have been, thanks to what is there.

This couldn’t have been a theme, exactly….

But this actually was…(well, a piece of it was, anyway)

So you can see (or hear), where they might have had a hard time choosing. And why they had a high bar to meet when they “remade” it (fanfare and all)…

And, by the late sixties, there was even at least one instance of a theme that blossomed out into a soundtrack (i.e., an ongoing ballad that ran through the whole movie, with endlessly witty variations, the gist of which are barely hinted at up front):

But, really, when it’s all said and done, there are three that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

One has the advantage of being from the greatest movie ever made:

One has the advantage of being both the greatest vocal and the best song ever recorded for a western theme.

But, down at the end, there’s something about the ground-breaker…Tex Ritter’s proudest moment, and one which he knew how to deliver more ways than one. My favorite is the one I played first, but this is a great variation. And there’s no more elegant or mysterious phrase in the English language than…”Wait along.”

 

MY FAVORITE HEIST FLICK: COMEDY DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

I have a thing for heist flicks. I have such a thing for heist flicks that I find it hard to believe I’ve operated this blog for four-and-a-half years without writing about at least one of them at length.

Today, I’ll fix that.

Heist flicks can be broadly defined: What’s a kidnapping movie but a heist flick about a stolen body? There must be some kind of horror film division where souls are filched eh? Westerns about land grabs? Yeah, I’ve heard of those.

You can stretch “heist” almost as far as you can stretch “noir.”

Forget all that. I’m sticking to the basics.

For the purposes of this little exercise, the heist flick concept will be limited to stories about some person or persons trying to steal some form of loot.

That ought to keep it simple.

And within that basic definition there are two fundamental approaches: Comedies and tragedies.

I’ll get to the tragedies later. Today I’ll stick to the comedies.

Better yet, I’ll stick to a period that stretches from the early sixties to the early seventies, when nearly all the best comedy heist flicks were made.

There were good ones before (Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, from 1955, a likely model of inspiration, comes directly to mind).

And I’m sure there have been good ones since (can’t think of any off-hand but the world’s a big place and I don’t like to say never).

But the best were nearly all made in those golden years between 1963 and 1971, when so many other pleasant things were going on, most of which these films never acknowledge.

They did have certain themes in common beyond the obvious heist structure. They all kept a fine balance between real comedy and real suspense…something Hitchcock himself only managed a few times. They all had genuinely clever plots that bordered on the feasible without inviting too much realism in  And they all had a developing love story at their center, which mirrored and enhanced both the comedy and the suspense.

My favorite is my favorite because it did the best job of balancing the love story with the rest. And considering who all and what all was involved in defining the genre, that’s saying something.

So….taking the best in chronological order (any other order would be an exercise in absurdity) and saving the very best for last:

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Charade (1963)
Director: Stanley Donen
Love Story: Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn
Heist Object: A Stamp (sort of!)

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Topkapi (1964)
Director: Jules Dassin
Love Story: Peter Ustinov and His Sorry Life
Heist Object: Emerald-encrusted Dagger

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)
Director: James Neilsen
Love Story: Hayley Mills (not the character she played so much as the actress) and the Isle of Crete.
Heist Object: Pearls (which have already been stolen…is there such a thing as a Reverse Heist Flick?)

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Kaleidoscope (1966)
Director: Jack Smight
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Oh! Susannah York
Heist Object: Casino Cash

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How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Love Story: Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (she made a romantic lead out of him…no small feat)
Heist Object: Paintings

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Waterhole #3 (1967)
Director: William Graham
Love Story: James Coburn and Margaret Blye’s Daddy (played by Caroll O’Connor…it’s complicated…a horse named Blue also figures prominently)
Heist Object: Gov…ern…ment…Gold

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1969)
Director: Don Siegel
Love Story: Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine (she made a romantic lead out of him…not even Audrey Hepburn could have managed that!)
Heist Object: Government Gold…it was a thing then.

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The Italian Job (1969)
Director: Peter Collinson
Love Story: Michael Caine and Noel Coward (though Margaret Blye once again makes for a lovely distraction)
Heist Object: Mafia Gold…being protected by the Government (a nice twist)

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Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
Director: Brian Hutton
Love Story: Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland (No attempt to involve Clint in that end of it this time. Telly and Donald were wonderful actors…but they were no Shirley MacLaine).
Heist Object: Government Gold (though this time it’s the Nazi government)

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Dollars (aka $) (1971)
Director: Richard Brooks
Love Story: Warren Beatty and Goldie Hawn (though a subplot involving Gert Frobe and a gold bar also works beautifully on many levels)
Heist Object: Safety Deposit Boxes….that belong to crooks..and a nice way to close down the concept’s golden age!

I’m sure there are one or two from the time period that I either haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Plus the one I won’t mention until I’m naming my favorite (though those who are sufficiently hip to the genre or the period can guess from that faux-noirish top photo, which I found myself unable to resist).

I’m sure there are other films in the same vein and of the same quality that were made outside this time period, but, again, laying aside Hitchcock in lighthearted mode as the obvious source for much of this, I either don’t know about them or haven’t seen them.

So I’ll stick to my premise.

There was a special hybrid of comedy/suspense heist films…and almost all the best ones were made in the space of a turbulent decade.

Few were made before, probably because whatever turbulence filmmakers felt the need to channel was then best channeled through the device of romantic comedy or some other form of farce. It’s no accident that most of the heist films I named above, and the favorite I’ll name below, were superb romantic comedies as well. And it’s no accident that the old forms of romantic comedy, including the screwball kind, were falling out of fashion, both critically and commercially, at the same time the heist comedy romances flourished.

Something had to plug the gap between marriage-as-the-object-of-desire and marriage-as-nothing-at-all.

What better than loot?

Later on (and by later, I mean a year or two), this whole approach became problematic because the gap closed and marriage was no longer even part of the gold standard. More to the point, the presumption that marriage itself was both the logical and desirable end of any love story–even one involving loot–simply became untenable as a cultural assumption.

And once a cultural assumption becomes untenable it loses its force as a narrative device. That might be why subsequent attempts to remake some of these films fell completely flat. (The Trouble With Charlie, Jonathan Demme’s reboot of Charade, may be the worst film ever made by a director of his talent. I do not say this lightly. The remake/sequel of The Italian Job is fun for about five minutes. That’s about the length of time it takes to transition from the end of the original to the sequel part. I haven’t seen the remake of my favorite, but the fact that it stayed in development hell for years hasn’t made me any way anxious to fill this little gap.)

The other thing that hasn’t made me anxious to see a remake of my favorite–not even when Jennifer Aniston was attached to it for a while–is that my favorite is perfect.

There is never a reason to remake anything that’s perfect.

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Gambit (1966)
Director: Ronald Neame
Love Story: Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine (who, in the romantic lead department, needed less help than any man not named Cary Grant, meaning, for once, Shirley didn’t have to work at being anything but Shirley).
Heist Object: The Bust of the Li Szu…or is it?

Gambit is the type of film that makes the crit-illuminati throw up their collective defenses. It’s always spoken of fondly but–horrors!–never taken seriously.

And since the job of the crit-illuminati is to shape the expectations of the rest of us–and I’m as susceptible as the next person (or was in youth anyway…I didn’t start out mistrusting everyone), I had to see it about ten times before I realized just how much better than really good such things can be.

Such things can tell us…things.

If we let them.

I’d never let that spoil the fun, though.

What makes this film good–really, really good–are the usual things that make movies really good. Great actors making difficult things look easy. (Watch the magnificent aplomb of the great Herbert Lom as he goes through a series of emotionally complicated shifts in character and perspective without making the least bit of fuss. You’ll have to make a point of watching because, even then, he’ll never let you catch him at it.) Real movie stars, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine in this case, in the glory of youth. Good tight writing and direction from established pros (Ronald Neame is a British version of Martin Ritt–all he ever seemed to do was make wonderful movies).

All that’s a given.

What gives the film force, though, a force that has carried through however many dozen viewings I’ve had a chance to give it, is that Caine’s Harry Tristan Dean and MacLaine’s Nicole Chang, spend the movie finding something that really is better than all the money in the world (and we know this because all the money in the world is what Lom,  playing “the world’s richest man,” has). Namely, each other.

It really was acting, of course, and acting of the highest order. Neither Michael Caine or Shirley MacClaine were exactly known for being the monogamous type.

But they, and everyone involved in all of these films, came out of cultures that valued forms of permanence, including especially the form that starts with “til death do us part.” And, having mastered the one art every great actor has to master, that of observation, they play out Gambit‘s romantic implications with such natural ease that the deepest cynic would have no trouble believing their characters will make some form of “til death do us part,” work…or that it will leave a hole in the world if they do not.

Those kind of assumptions are all lost now and that’s the real reason nobody makes this kind of movie stick anymore. It’s certainly not for lack of trying and, amidst all the usual blogging/facebooking/tweeting/think-piecing laments about the absence of “basic story-telling” in modern narratives (be it film, stage or page) no one really wants to acknowledge the underlying reason, because it would mean admitting it as part of the price of “freedom,” in this case, the freedom to live in a world where “til death do us part,” and “well, as long as you won’t be here in the morning,” carry the same cultural weight.

It might or might not make for a better world. We’ll find out soon enough because right now we’re living in the afterglow of a cultural collapse which hasn’t made its own force felt as economic or military collapse. Here’s hoping we’ll be the first people to avoid facing the usual consequences.

But, however it works out in the “real” world, it sure makes for a hole in the world of narrative fiction the meantime. “Stories”–as opposed to the shiny-object distractions filmmakers (and novelists and playwrights), now strive to deliver across the board, often with an impenetrable layer of “seriousness” ladled on top–depend on cultural assumptions, the value of “til death do us part” being one of the principals that sustained basic narratives for about five thousand years, from the birth of narrative, until yesterday.

Right up to the moment Gambit was being made in fact.

Which is why a light entertainment from the mid-sixties carries more weight than we have any right expect, and not just because Shirley MacLaine, the actress of her age, gets to be as good as she was in any of her richly deserved Oscar-nominated performances.

Good and necessary as Caine is (as good and necessary as it gets), it’s her show, just the way the old screwballs were always the woman’s show.

For starters, she gets to use her dancer’s body more than most dancers do in actual musicals. From the tight little walk that the movie’s opening tracks through a crowded Hong Kong street, you could be forgiven for believing she’ll get right to it. Instead, she spends the next twenty minutes being the one thing you would bet Shirley MacLaine could never be, which is bo-r-r-r-ing, If you spend the whole time waiting for her to move a muscle in her face, don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

It might be the best pure acting job of her career, because the joy (as opposed to fun, which this movie always is) starts when she starts to talk and it turns out she’s a girl who really, really likes to talk. Shirley MacLaine on a movie screen could never be boring when she talked, because she never talked like anyone else. Here, once she starts, she talks a blue streak and even Michael Caine, completely in control to that point, has to run to keep up.

After that, it becomes a game of romantic yin-and-yang. Every time he gets dumber, she gets smarter and, when she finally gets dumber again, he gets smarter again just in the nick of time. And we realize that if he gets dumber a little more often than she does, it’s because she’s seen more of the world than he has…and maybe even more than he thinks he has.

So, yeah, for all those reasons and more, Gambit is my favorite comic heist flick. But it’s also my favorite because it’s a reminder that, when we bother to look back, the moment of our forgetting is tantalizingly near.

It’s as if we could still reach back and touch it, maybe even reclaim what we’ve forgotten if we wanted to. One moment, movies like this seemed simple, even inevitable. The next moment, what we call “now,” they seem impossible.

So, now, whenever Gambit nears its end, and the actress of the age just gone by starts once again talking about “all that Mongolian clay,” I’m no longer sure whether to laugh or cry.

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Then Nicole arrives, and she climbs into the heavily protected cage. But she sets of the alarm.The last bit’s the tell…because, across an uncrowded room that’s taken their whole lives to reach, it’s obvious the Li Szu is no longer the object of desire.